An Idealist View

I often talk about perception and experience with my students. Over the course of the day they learn how to explore what the limits of their cars are as well as their appetites for exploring their own limits. Both are a matter of perception.

I like Marcel DuChamp’s Bicycle Wheel. A lot of other folks do too. Per the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in Manhattan webpage on the piece, “In 1913,” recalled Marcel Duchamp, “I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn.”1 The result, Bicycle Wheel, is the first of Duchamp’s Readymades—objects (sometimes manufactured or mass-produced) selected by the artist and designated as art. Most of Duchamp’s Readymades were individual objects that he repositioned or signed and called art, but Bicycle Wheel is what he called an “assisted Readymade,” made by combining more than one utilitarian item to form a work of art.

The work in MoMA’s collection is the third version of Bicycle Wheel. The first, now lost, was made nearly 40 years earlier, in 1913. Because the materials Duchamp selected to be Readymades were mass-produced, he did not consider any Readymade to be an original.

When Bicycle Wheel was first displayed, Duchamp encouraged viewers to spin its wheel. Although he claimed to select objects for his Readymades without regard to beauty, he said, “To see that wheel turning was very soothing, very comforting…I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace.” (

As the artist himself noted there is something special about this piece. Even though DuChamp’s wheel isn’t going anywhere it still moves us to a different place. DuChamp’s Readymades are part of the Dada period (the first 20 or so years of the 20th century) and movement in art which was a reaction to the commercialization and mechanization of so much of life, including the horrors of mechanized war as never before seen until WW I. That art could be what an artist decided to call art was not appreciated by other artists who worked in a traditional manner to create their art. Seems to me that the tweaking of noses aspect is part of the attraction of Dada (the name itself is made up to sound like gibberish.)

But the Bicycle Wheel, as well as other mass-produced items do hold aesthetic value and are beautiful which leads me back to perception. In June of 2016, neuro-psychiatrist, and Nobel winner, Dr. Eric Kandel who is the co-director of the Zuckerman Institute which is focused on the Mind, Brain, and Behavior, participated in a panel at MOMA that was responding to the question, “What is art for?” Dr. Kandel’s reply was that “art is for the beholder.” As written in the Institute’s article on the panel session, Kandel “described viewing a piece of art as an act of creation in the mind of the observer. The brain, he said, is not merely a camera that records the light particles striking our eyes. It is a “creativity machine” that represents what we see in ways that may differ from person to person. Kandel goes on to talk about how abstract art is a particularly good example of this because we each have to fill in the blank more or less.

In the Nature of Perception by John Foster, published back in 2000, the author describes two general theories of the nature of perception. The first is called strong directed realism (SDR) and the second is called broad representative theory (BRT). As the names imply each idea relates to how specific perception is tied to how we take things at face value, so to speak. Both accept that reality is real, but SDR gives less space for interpretation of reality. BRT, on the other hand, takes the ground that everything is psychologically mediated. The difficulty is that the two theories do not overlap. SDR can’t account for how we interpret what we see, and BRT can’t allow for how we interact with the realities of the physical world. As the abstract at the book link states, “the only way of providing a satisfactory account of perception is by abandoning the assumption of physical realism and adopting an idealist view of the physical world.”

I don’t go on about theories of perception in the classroom – we’re trying to make the learning to drive fast experience enjoyable not abstract or head-explodingly harder than it already is. However the ideas about how we perceive the physical world underpin what we are trying to teach both in the car on the track and in our classroom environment. So, “adopting an idealist view of the physical world” is absolutely necessary to learning how to learn how to go fast. I guess it’s a bit like suspending our belief when we attend a play – that is, we know that the characters and their actions on a stage are not reality, but unless we allow ourselves to perceive the play as a representation of reality it would be a very boring experience.

We’re heading down the straight at a fast pace. The numbers don’t matter, but let’s say 120 miles an hour which is more than most of us have experienced as drivers. Our reality has been mostly been somewhere under 100 mph. (I am always amazed at the lack of strong directed realism that is displayed on the highway by drivers who tailgate…) Generally, the desire for self-preservation and the lack of experience in slowing for a corner from 120 means that the novice driver will hit the brakes too early. So early that they often go back to the gas pedal and then have to brake again.

The broad interpretation of reality perception that we are trying to overcome is not about stopping the car before we crash. Rather, we are trying to teach how to get through the corner at the end of the straight as quickly as possible by adopting an idealist view of the physical world through building up the top speed that the driver is comfortable going. Although this sounds simple, the thing is that experiential based brains mean that our perception is always trying to catch up to reality so starting out slowly and building up speed is a good train to catch, but not foolproof. If it were, then the coaching and the learning would be so much less interesting.